Schools May Not Coerce Students To Pledge Belief In God, AU Tells Court

Public schools may not pressure students to pledge belief in "one nation under God," Americans United for Separation of Church and State has advised the U.S. Supreme Court.

Americans United and allied civil liberties groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief Feb. 13 insisting that the U.S. Constitution bars public school officials from leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance because addition of the words "under God" has turned the patriotic ritual into an affirmation of religious belief.

"Public schools are no place for religious indoctrination," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "No student should be forced to profess belief in God in order to show love of country."

The 30-page brief filed in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow argues that public school promotion of the Pledge "communicates to schoolchildren a forbidden message of government endorsement of religion" and "pressures schoolchildren to profess religious belief and affirm religious ideals." This violates the First Amendment's church-state separation provision, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was on solid constitutional ground when it ruled last year that public schools may not sponsor daily recitation of the Pledge.

"The pressure on a child to affirm religion and religious belief by reciting the Pledge is only magnified by the fact that refraining from reciting it can be construed by teacher and classmates as lack of patriotism," states the brief.

Ayesha Khan, AU's legal director and one of the brief's authors, said teacher-led recitation of the pledge places some students in precarious situations.

"It puts many students between a rock and a hard place," Khan said, "by forcing them to betray their religious beliefs or appear unpatriotic."

The AU brief cites a clear historical record demonstrating that Congress and other public officials intended to promote religion when "under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954. When he signed the bill into law, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the legislation meant that schoolchildren would daily "proclaim...the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

The brief notes that elected officials today still view the Pledge as a government-backed statement of religious belief. An appendix to the AU brief includes a letter from Buddhists urging President George W. Bush to support the 9th Circuit decision and to remind Congress of its responsibility of upholding the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In his Nov. 13, 2002, response, Bush brushed aside the appeal and insisted that the words of the Pledge "help define our nation." He wrote, "During these challenging times, we are determined to stand for these words.... When we pledge allegiance to One Nation under God, our citizens participate in an important American tradition of humbly seeking wisdom and blessing of Divine Providence."

The Bush administration joined with lawyers for the Elk Grove school district in offering a number of arguments in support of the policy of requiring teacher-led, daily recitation of the Pledge. For one, the administration and Elk Grove argue that public school children are likely to perceive "under God" as a statement about the nation's history and political philosophy.

The AU brief, which was also signed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Religious Liberty, argues that it would take "a very subtle six-year-old" to view a daily recital of a pledge as merely an acknowledgment of the nation's history. The brief also cites Supreme Court precedent holding that "schoolchildren are subject to a 'pronounced' and 'particular risk' of indirect coercion in school settings." The Supreme Court has therefore "been 'particularly vigilant' in ensuring public schools do not trample on students' First Amendment rights.

Other groups filing separationist briefs included history and religion professors, clergy, Buddhist temples, pantheists and various non-theistic organizations.

Said AU's Lynn, "The First Amend­ment leaves no room for government officials to lead students in religious exercises. The Supreme Court has placed great emphasis on protecting the individual rights of all public schools students and should do so again in this case."

The oral argument at the Supreme Court in the Newdow case is scheduled for March 24.